BWW Reviews: Jeanine Tesori's Opera, THE LION, THE UNICORN, AND ME, Debuts at Kennedy Center and Charms Audience
The Washington National Opera (WNO), a bit of a Washington, DC institution, has never presented a work by a female composer - until now, that is. The Kennedy Center is currently the site of award-winning musical theatre composer Jeanine Tesori's commissioned world premiere opera featuring a libretto by J.D. "Sandy" McClatchy and solid direction by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. Suitable for the entire family, particularly during this holiday season, The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me takes us on a rather unique trip to Bethlehem - one that's filled with joyous music, charming and undeniably talented children, and showcases the talent of young opera singers.
Based on a novel of the same name by Jeanette Winterson, we go on a journey back in time with an angel (11 year-old boy soprano Henry Wager). He's a bit unsure of the task he has ahead of him - "cast" an animal to help Mary (mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin) and Joseph (tenor Patrick O'Halloran) get to Bethlehem to deliver the Christ child.
There's a flamingo (soprano Lisa Williamson), a cat (mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel), the confident and slightly cocky and self-absorbed Lion (bass Soloman Howard) and a special unicorn (soprano Jacqueline Echols) as options. Presenting their cases and special skills in song, they try to convince the angel and onlookers of their suitability for the task. Yet, when a donkey (baritone John Orduña) appears on the scene, he focuses not on how special he is, but what he can and has done for others. It's clear he's the one to take on the important task. What follows is the story of how the donkey gets Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and the challenges and blessings they encounter there with the donkey at their side and the angel looking on.
Certainly, particularly at this time of the year, there's no shortage of concerts and plays that focus on Jesus' birth. Yet, the original nature of this story - initially slightly different than what we've all heard before - and the fact that it's presented in a way that can engage modern, cosmopolitan kids and adults alike is likely to make it a hugely popular offering by opera companies in the 'family opera' slot.
This is deservedly so. The music and the libretto work seamlessly together to create something special. Neither panders to the youngest child in the audience, yet offer something that's sophisticated while at the same time accessible. Although presented here as an opera with opera singers, I also think it would work with musical theatre actors if presented by a company with a solid musical theatre track record. The beauty of The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me is that it's not strictly an opera piece nor is it a musical theatre piece masking as an opera piece.
Tesori's diverse compositions are a key ingredient to the success of the production. Whether creating a number that includes choral work from the children or solo pieces for the principals, she gets kudos for not repeating herself and always offering something that's melodically catchy while still being interesting. The tender, spirited choral numbers are an asset and are certainly well-sung in this production. The selections she offers for the Lion and the Donkey in the first act are among her best work to-date. The music beautifully captures the essence of these characters as does a later number in the second act for Mary and are expertly sung by Howard, Orduña, and Martin.
Howard and Orduña rich voices are a thing of glory in and of themselves, but I appreciate that they seem to authentically connect emotionally with the music and not simply use it as a platform to show off their impeccable technique and nothing more. Martin's crystal clear mezzo-soprano voice is certainly going to serve her well in the opera world, but I can also see it working for more legit roles in musical theatre as well.
Yet, it's Tesori's selections for the angel that are the perfect blend of tenderness and sophistication while not sounding too saccharine. Wager's sweet, angelic boy soprano voice proves well-suited to the whole lot of them. While at times he comes off (to me, at least) as a child with musical theatre credits trying to consistently sing in a way that isn't completely comfortable or natural to himself, his natural stage presence, willingness to engage with the music, and technical ability are one of the reasons this production is so successful. Zambello should absolutely be commended for this casting choice.